Accreditation is not what it used to be, at least in terms as being recognized as a standard of academic quality. Last week, Belle S. Wheelan and Mark A. Elgart published an essay at InsideHigherEd arguing that we should “Say No to ‘Checklist’ Accountability” as an argument against the White House Scorecard, PIRS, and other initiatives to differentiate institutions based on performance. In a nutshell they argue that the peer-review process accomplishes so much more than any single measurement could, that we should trust accreditation.
In many ways I agree with their arguments. However, at this point, I am a bit tired of explaining of explaining to state legislators that we should trust SACS and other accreditors, regional and national, when the only time an institution is shut down is based on financial issues, not academic issues. If academic quality issues are involved, we never hear about them.
Attacked at times by policy makers as an irrelevant anachronism and by institutions as a series of bureaucratic hoops through which they must jump, the regional accreditors’ approach to quality control has rather become increasingly more cost-effective, transparent, and data- and outcomes-oriented.
If this is true, where exactly is the transparency? I look at the SACS Commission on Colleges website and I see no data tools about outcomes. Under “Accreditation Actions & Disclosure Statements,” I see only two documents. Apparently nothing happened prior to 2013. Where can I download or review the site visit reports?
All I can do is trust the accreditation works even though I have no evidence that a college has have ever lost standing for academic quality reasons. Colleges rarely share their site visit reports, if ever. In Virginia, we frequently have to beat back legislation that requires those be published or at least shared with the General Assembly. I’ve seen enough site visits and assisted in enough decennial self-study to recognize that there is a great deal of value in the process, but to suggest it is transparent or outcomes-oriented goes too far in my opinion.
I don’t think ratings or scorecards solve the problem of differentiating between institutions based on quality, but clearly accreditation currently does not, or else the proposals would not be out there. These things occur when a need is not being met. Legislators and policymakers want a better answer than “trust us.” So do a lot of other people. The accreditors ultimately determine if an institution is eligible to participate in Title IV aid programs. If the accreditors do not become much more transparent and provide explicit data and information on institutional quality, these proposals will become more than proposals and will make accreditors ultimately irrelevant.
After all, if a single score, like a Cohort Default Rate, can end eligibility, accreditors are only relevant for initial participation. At that point maybe we don’t need them as a gatekeeper.